Grading the performances for the penultimate Chase for the Championship race on Sunday at Phoenix:
Carl Edwards: The points leader engaged in a race-long chess match with pursuer Tony Stewart, ultimately finishing second and maintaining a three-point lead heading to Homestead-Miami, where he has won twice (including last year) and has six top-10s in seven starts. A win comprises Edwards' only title-clinching scenario. Edwards' margin over Stewart is the smallest between the first- and second-place drivers entering the final race in Chase history, even accounting for the new points system.
Tony Stewart: The two-time series champion greedily acquired every point possible on Sunday, cognizant of how close the points race is and could remain, considering the way he and Edwards are currently performing. Stewart squirreled away one bonus point for leading the most laps (160 of 312) and passed Jeff Burton for third place in the final moments of the race to make Phoenix a push.
Ryan Newman: Stewart's teammate produced his best performance of the Chase in finishing fifth, perhaps inspired by the announcement of that partial new Outback sponsorship for 2012. Either way, Newman improved from 30th to fifth on the track.
"We've had some struggles here during the championship Chase on pit road, but to come back from what we did and start from where we did and end up [fifth] is a good day," he said.
Kyle Busch: An undoubtedly trying and annoying weekend was rounding into reasonable shape for Busch 188 laps into the race. Busch and his M&M's-free No. 18 Toyota -- following sponsor sanctions stemming from his wreck of Ron Hornaday Jr. in a Trucks race at Texas -- ran inside the top three ... and then his Joe Gibbs Racing motor imploded, sending him to a 36th-place finish. JGR's switch to Toyota Racing Development powerplants for 2012 seems like a wiser move every week.
Denny Hamlin: He bemoaned an inability to pass and surmised his team "missed the setup pretty bad" but still finished 12th.
Matt Kenseth: The 2003 series champion entered the race statistically viable for a title, but the No. 17 Ford was made absolutely unviable after it was planted in the wall in an apparent act of retribution by Brian Vickers. Kenseth, who had punted Vickers at Martinsville, had said he was having brake issues but was masterful in laying out the case of punishment against Vickers as his car was being triaged in the garage. Kenseth had led 49 laps and was in the top-five in running order before Vickers came knocking at the back door.
Jimmie Johnson: The run is over. Johnson was mathematically eliminated from championship contention after finishing 14th, ending his five-year domination as Sprint Cup champion. Johnson has hardly seemed distraught over what he has for years said was an inevitability and tweeted "it's been one hell of a run" after the race. Thing is, considering his age and station, he could begin another run in 2012 and make bid for the all-time championships record of seven held by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
"We'll definitely learn," Johnson said. "To a certain degree being on top for as long as we have been takes a lot of effort to maintain that. It just takes a lot out of you. So this winter will be a nice winter to unplug and relax and really look internally and dissect the different areas of the race team and what we do and come back stronger. I've always learned more from tougher moments and by no means is this a tough moment. Yes, the streak is gone but we've still got a shot at a top-five in points and that would be a big year still."
Brad Keselowski: "We had a really good Dodge Charger at the [beginning] of the race and felt like we had a car to win it," he said. "As the race progressed, [we] just lost the handle on it [and] lost a bunch of spots on pit road and I just didn't execute at the end of the race."
Kevin Harvick: The one-time points leader said his team "took some gambles" trying to figure out the reconfigured track. Those gamble did not work. He finished 19th.
Kurt Busch: The 2004 series champion was again dogged by several common themes on Sunday: He led 57 laps, which, certainly, is positive. But a mistake by his crew -- apparently failing to fill the No. 22 Dodge full of fuel -- led to Busch surrendering the lead to pit earlier than expected, running out of fuel, being nabbed for speeding because his tachometer was subsequently non-functional, stalling the car on pit road and berating everyone on his radio frequency. He finished 22nd after scoring the Kurt Busch flush.
"What an unbelievable turn of events," he said. "We worked our butts off all race trying to get track position and just couldn't cash our ticket in late in the race. We knew that track position and two-tire strategy were going to be keys and it almost paid off for us. [Crew chief] Steve [Addington] made the great call for two left sides under caution around Lap 220. That got us out front, but we may not have packed the Shell/Pennzoil Dodge full of fuel. We're not exactly sure, but it certainly appears that way."
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: NASCAR's most popular driver finished a quiet 24th as the entire Hendrick Motorsports fleet seemed to be befuddled by the new Phoenix configuration.
Jeff Gordon: See Earnhardt Jr.
"We knew we were out of it, but you want to close the season out on a positive note and carry some momentum into the offseason," said Gordon, who finished 32nd. "It hasn't been our Chase at all and not the kind of year we wanted or the way we wanted to close out the year. This is a very good team and we've got a lot to look forward to in the future."